SART Foundations: Addressing Alcohol and Victim Blame
For the final two year celebration/posts in review, I want to bring forward one that folks have cited as really useful. This post is focused on alcohol and victim-blame. However, the strategies listed here are great for any type of victim blame, not just when someone has consumed alcohol.
One of the major challenges I hear from teams everywhere, especially if there is a college/university environment, is the issue of how alcohol affects the reporting/justice processes. From issues like victim blame, to lack of knowledge about alcohol’s effects, to cultural assumptions about drinking, the Sexual Assault Response Team can be trying to manage a lot while discussing the intersections between sexual violence and alcohol. I certainly don’t have any surefire answers when trying to help teams manage these conversations; it is a complex, loaded topic. While there aren’t any great answers, there are a couple of strategies that seem to be effective in managing the discussions on your teams.
- Acknowledge the use of alcohol as a tool. Alcohol is often used as a weapon or a tool to increase another person’s vulnerability. Folks can easily get stuck on what a victim might have done, decisions they made before, during, or after the assault, etc… The questions or comments can focus singularly on victim’s actions. Bring it back to the totality of circumstance—the entire context in which the events occurred. Encourage your team to ask questions about what others in the situation were doing and the larger environment. Was the perpetrator handing drinks to the victim? Did the perpetrator know how much the victim had consumed? Did they talk about plans to get someone intoxicated in order to engage in sexual activity? Were people around the victim encouraging them to continue drinking? Did anyone offer to assist the victim in safely leaving? Get the wider view of the situation to understand how alcohol is used as a tool by perpetrators.
- Rely on curiosity. Instead of responding with shock, anger, or whatever else might immediately come to mind, consider approaching the victim-blaming with curiosity. Engage the person/people with the goal of learning more about why they may hold that opinion. Coming at the situation without judgment, you can leave more space for discussion and exploration of the issues. You also model positive ways to handle difficult conversations.
- Bring it back to your mission/purpose. If victim blame and alcohol become an issue for your team, consider pushing your team to think about their mission/purpose. Why does your team get together? My guess is it’s to help improve outcomes and experiences for victims. Sometimes, folks dig their heels in when you are pushing them. So, re-establish your mission and ask how this belief/approach might fit in with your work.
- Making it personal vs. agency. There are times when it is useful to ask the person, “Is this a personal judgment or are you speaking on behalf of your agency?” When working on a SART, it can be easy to forget that you represent an agency or entire discipline. Reminding the team that each of you are there to speak on behalf of the agencies/disciplines, not on their personal beliefs can be a really useful strategy to address victim blame (among other issues!).
These are just a few strategies for addressing victim-blame when discussing alcohol and sexual violence. If you have thoughts, questions, or other useful strategies, please share them in the comments!